Reciprocity in Ancient Greece

By Christopher Gill; Norman Postlethwaite et al. | Go to book overview

4
Akhilleus and Agamemnon: Generalized Reciprocity

NORMAN POSTLETHWAITE

In his address to the conference on which this volume is based Gabriel Herman voiced the general consensus that 'the [ Homeric] hero [does not] seem capable of giving a gift or performing a service without expectation of return -- a pattern which, since Comte, has come to be known as altruism. Benevolent and disinterested sentiments, dispositions, tendencies and actions which have as their direct object the good of others than the hero himself and his family seem to be totally alien to his spirit.' However Graham Zanker argues in Chapter 3 that Akhilleus' conduct towards Priam in Book 24 of the Iliad reaches beyond the norms of reciprocity evident in the dealings of other characters within the poem and does indeed display a degree of altruism. Zanker suggests further that Book 24 'prescriptively commends' this form of altruism and, following the suggestions of Morris ( 1986b), he argues that this reflects the role of altruism in a historical Greek society, specifically the society of the eighth century BC in which he thinks Homer himself lived. This last suggestion begs a variety of questions which it is beyond the scope of this chapter to address, not least the nature of the monumental composition which is subsumed under the catch-all heading 'Homer'. However, by viewing Akhilleus' conduct towards Priam in the much broader context of his conduct generally in the poem, and in particular his conduct towards Agamemnon, I argue that his conduct there, far from showing altruism, demonstrates a selfconscious abuse of the conventions of balanced reciprocity and an assertion of his own authority by means of generalized reciprocity. That is, I suggest that Akhilleus' actions in Book 24 are, more economically and more convincingly, to be explained as the continuation of his animosity towards Agamemnon, being motivated by a spirit of ethical superiority which is entirely consonant with

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